Clicker Training as a State of Mind
and The Jeweled Web of Indra

"Indra's net symbolizes a universe where infinitely repeated mutual relations exist between all members of the universe." - Wikipedia


Somewhere at the beginning of our Friday night introduction, Alexandra quoted one of her clients: Clicker training is a state of mind.

Of course, it doesn't start this way when we are first introduced to it. Having two new people join our group in this clinic gave us the privilege of revisiting the basics and the whys of clicker training.

One of the cool things about Alexandra's foundation behaviors is that they are not taught linearly. You don't start at the point A and move to the point F through B, C, and so on. Rather, almost from the very start, it is an interconnected web of behaviors. Of course, you are very likely to start with targeting, but whether you move to Happy Faces or to Grown-Ups are Talking will depend on what your horse and you need at the time. And very soon, instead of a number of disconnected behavioral "tricks", your horse is in possession of workable, useful, and flexible (adjustable to the situation) clusters of behaviors. And the next cool thing about it is that all the "fancy stuff" grows out of perfecting these basic foundation behaviors. Head down is a good example. In the beginning, it is great for emotional control. It builds a solid relaxation circuit, which many horses start using without prompting, to calm themselves down. From the head down position, through longer duration and getting the nose closer to the front feet, you create relaxation and stretching through the spine, along with rocking of the weight back into the hindquarters. And this opens the doorway to that Holy Grail of horsemanship: true collection.

Because for most of us the goal is to ride, this point and this connection is of great importance. From the very foundation lessons, riding for the horse's spine is a priority.

Foundation lessons are not a checklist, something you go through once or twice and then discard. They are never outdated, and the more they are revisited and perfected, the more readily available they are when you most need them. The web that is created becomes the horse's safety net. I liked Alexandra's notion that a horse that comes with a safety net is more likely to stay safe, to enjoy a long term relationship with a person or a family, and to have a good life.

The same concept of a net applies to problem solving. For any given problem, it is not one particular solution, but a whole network of coping tools what will build the horse's confidence and, importantly, coping skills. The net will not break as easily as one strand, and it is flexible enough to accommodate for a variety of stressful situations and fearful stimuli.

Another area where the concept of a net applies is the many ways to teach the same behavior. And the more ways, the more solid the resulting behavior will be. How many ways are there to teach head down? Targeting, hand on the neck, "milking" the lead rope, backing in a square, free shaping... more?

Another aspect of clicker training that comes forth from the very start is its creativity. As a student, you are taught how to train your horse, rather than how to follow a set of instructions. And that is empowering. An equine student, in the meantime, is taught how to learn, think, and communicate with his human partner safely, productively, and joyfully. Actually, the same applies, word to word, to the human partner as well. Clicker training brings horses and humans together as equal beings, on many levels, and this is one of them.

Clicker training is scientific. But in this day and age, the opposites come together. Science - emotional? Science - spiritual? Clicker training is both. I loved it when Alexandra talked about the love and appreciation that comes with every click. Yes! Once you start with clicker training, there is no way back. How can you go back to NOT rewarding your horse for all the wonderful things he does? And you see all the opportunities that open... And just that sparkle in his eyes... Many people who come into clicker training have a concern that "it is all about food". It may start this way, but it does not stay this way very long. The web of knowledge, learning, joy, compassion, and creativity that we build grows exponentially, and the ripple effects are astounding. This is when it becomes a state of mind.

A dear friend, not a horse person, brought up the concept of the Jeweled Web of Indra in a recent email. Unfamiliar with it, I looked it up and could not help marveling at yet another coincidence, yet another reflection of the world in yet another sparkling dewdrop. Holding on to linear thinking seems to be more and more futile and limiting in the face of this delightful and limitless interconnectedness.

"In the Heaven of Indra, there is said to be a network of pearls, so arranged that if you look at one you see all the others reflected in it. In the same way each object in the world is not merely itself but involves every other object and in fact IS everything else." - Sir Charles Eliot


On Saturday, we had our progression of horses nicely lined up for us. Karen partnered up with Charmer (who is still looking for the right person to take him home) for an exploration of clicker-compatible leading. Such familiar problems as the horse lagging behind or barging into you with his shoulder virtually disappear when you engage your core and use your energy to courteously invite the horse to follow you. We practiced this with role-playing, and when I say courteously, this is exactly what I mean. After a while, what we were doing was a delightful dance, I could just picture the hats, and feathers, and flowing gowns... And after that fun experience, trying on the "regular" leading technique (just walking off) was particularly jolting. From the dance with our hands folded at the core, it was a natural progression to engage the lead rope, sliding one hand to the snap and inviting the "horse" to move ahead in a dance called "Why Would You Leave Me".

After we played for a while in pairs, Karen went to the round pen and asked Charmer what he thought of our dance steps. He was much more confident and trusting as he followed her, and almost all of his earlier lagging and barging disappeared.

Karen and Charmer working on the mechanics of leading.
How do you invite your horse to follow you as you walk off using your core?

Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning were dedicated to the exploration of Microriding. This is such a vast topic that it deserves a separate report. Then we proceeded to role playing with WWYLM. Color coding the target spots with colored duct tape was an ingenious technique. I often have trouble telling left from right under pressure. "Yellow to yellow, orange to orange" is a lot easier to process than "Left hand to the marker on the left shoulder, right hand to the snap". Things got crazier, as they tend to in these clinics, when new lingo terms started emerging, such as "Yellow hand paralysis" (credit goes to Molly) for, you guessed it, the common condition of forgetting to slide the buckle hand to horse's shoulder as the other hand goes to the snap, which allows for the formation of Tai Chi Wall.

Role playing, as always, was very elucidating. We worked in groups of four: two people made up the front and the back end of the horse, and there was a handler and a coach. For me one of the AHA!s of the clinic came from being, well, the horse's butt. If the "handler" did not ask the "horse" to yield the shoulder, I had to practically run to catch up with the front end of the "horse". This was as puzzling as it was frustrating and uncomfortable. The situation changed instantly when the handler remembered to activate that "yellow hand", sliding it to the "horse's" shoulder. As the shoulder yielded, I could comfortably follow the front end of our improvised horse, and my inside hip breathed a sigh of relief, since I could finally engage my joints in a much more balanced and pleasing movement. What was particularly illuminating for me is how uncomfortable it was to walk around a circle without a bend. I observed myself getting quite irritated with both the "front end" and the "handler" for subjecting me to this discomfort. I would not be surprised if this is how a stiff horse feels, for if I could paint my emotions on a horse, it would have wrinkled nostrils, flattened ears, and a swishing tail.

Violet and Molly carried the insights gained from role playing WWYLM to working with Violet's Tarpan mares Giselle and Tatiana. Giselle already had some experience with it through her homework with Violet, whereas for Tatiana it was all new.

In Molly's words: "I thoroughly enjoyed the clinic, especially my frustrating yet rewarding time in the round pen with Tatiana.  I thought I'd never put it all together - hands, arms, feet, lead rope.  Finally, I felt in synch with her and my body parts were cooperating.  I've been doing pre-WWYLM with my horse and I now feel ready for the next step."

Violet with Giselle and Molly with Tatiana learning the mechanics of WWYLM. The hands go between the Tai Chi wall and the "Grown-Ups are Talking" position (folded at the core). Color markers help to, literally, connect the dots. In Tai Chi Wall, the orange marker on the person's hand goes to the orange marker on the horse's halter, and the yellow marker on the other hand goes to the yellow marker on the horse's shoulder.

Alexandra and Giselle in WWYLM

Alexandra's creative metaphor illuminated WWYLM from an unusual angle. She compared the same color duct tape markers on the horse and handler to the same-pole magnets that repel each other. The horse is clicked for maintaining the constant distance between the same color markers, and in this sense, WWYLM is a targeting exercise.

Tatiana learning to stay in the balance of WWYLM with Alexandra. If she rushes ahead, Alexandra asks her to step back as a reset.

Tatiana was soon up to speed, and both Tarpans were transformed from modest ponies in their winter coats into fancy mini-Lipizzaners, as they started lifting through the withers and carrying themselves in beautiful balance.

Tatiana (on the left) and Giselle (on the right) in a beautiful WWYLM balance.

For me, the lessons of WWYLM carried into riding. Arrow and I had a blast with our Sunday session. This is when I finally made a connection between rope mechanics in WWYLM and rein mechanics in riding. Arrow was already offering his signature carriage. How do I receive it without disturbing it? The moment of recognition came when Alexandra pointed out that riding on a triangle was an equivalent of Tai Chi Wall in WWYLM, and riding on the buckle was the same as having your hands folded at your core in WWYLM. I felt that I fumbled through our session, but neither Arrow's serenity, nor my inspiration to explore new insights were disturbed by my struggle to sort out my two left hands.

I used to think that having spent most of my waking hours in the saddle for almost four years entitled me to a notion that I knew how to ride. I wouldn't have been caught dead admitting to be fumbling with the reins. I am grateful to my journey into clicker training for keeping to erode that part of my ego. There is nothing like sitting on my Spirit Horse in complete openness and wonder, feeling the same energy moving through our two bodies, listening with my cells, feeling for the ways to surf that wave, leaving behind the habit of forcing it. As far as going to horses for answers: An awkward, frantic, unhappy in his body, stick-necked pacer is not the same horse who calmly offers me the power of living-through-his-body to merge with and to journey into together.

In the next clinic, by the way, the focus will move from Why Would You Leave Me to Why Won't You Ride Me. More great things to explore!

My exploration of going between riding on the buckle to riding on two reins through sliding down the rein into a Tai Chi Wall (rather soggy in the picture above).

Arrow, in the meantime, is doing his part beautifully.